Ireland, 1936: A Dabble in Fascism
By Neil Ferron

Cardinal Lauri blessing the military guard during the 31st Eucharistic Congress.

Not Just a Prude

Within the social dynamic of the Mundy household in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, there is a simple breakdown of social roles occupied by the five sisters: Maggie is the joker, Agnes is the quiet one, Rose is "simple," and Chris is the young one. Kate, the eldest, would most easily by labeled the prude, a schoolmarm bestowed with the nickname "The Gander."

But there is something subtle and unique going on within Kate’s conservative Catholic outlook, something easily missed by contemporary viewers. Kate is not simply the archetypal schoolteacher. She is actually the most contemporary woman in the Mundy household (contemporary to the year 1936). Her conservative ideology is representative of a larger movement that was occurring in the 1920s and 1930s, a movement towards cultural conservatism and economic pragmatism, which swept the world and fermented into a doctrine known as Fascism.

Everybody is Broke

A crowd waits outside a railway station to greet Cardinal Lauri.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression had ravaged the global economy and unemployment was rampant. These economic failings crept into the spirit of the people, and there was a prevailing zeitgeist of ineptitude. In response, an ideology rose out of post-war Italy. It required very little: join the crowds. It promised very much: a prosperous and powerful nation, a nation that could achieve "a higher life...a life free of the limitations of time and space."

This ideology was called "Fascismo," and the promise came from Benito Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism. And in 1936, Fascism was all the rage.

The term was derived from the Italian word fascio, which means "bundle," and the Fascist emblem was the fasces, a bundle of rods tied around an axe. Started as an ancient Roman symbol of authority, the fasces suggests that a single rod is easily broken, while the bundle is nearly impossible to break.

Fascism spread across the world and took on many different faces—Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, Franco in Spain. Outside nations ingratiated themselves to some of these Fascists, particularly Mussolini. Winston Churchill supported Mussolini as late as 1937 and praised him as a strong safeguard against communism. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, prior to Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, said that he was "keeping in touch with the admirable gentleman" (referring to Mussolini). Even Gandhi met with Mussolini.

Fascist Ireland

Eoin O'Duffy, leader of the "Society of the Gaels" political party, and the Blueshirts.

Ireland was not isolated from this global love affair with Fascism. Culturally, the Catholic Church provided the Irish people with a unified front against outside beliefs—pagan, Anglican, or otherwise. In 1932, Dublin hosted the 31st International Eucharistic Congress. They welcomed the Pope's emissary, Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri, with a squadron of Irish Air Corps planes flying in the formation of the crucifix and 36,000 school children lined up to greet him on the road to Dublin city center. Many scholars later noted that the size and social orchestration of the Congress bore many similarities to Hitler's Nuremberg Rallies.

Politically, Fascism in Ireland appeared in the form of the "Blueshirts." A political party known as Cumann na nGaedheal ("Society of the Gaels") developed a military wing who dressed in blue paramilitary uniforms and greeted each other with the Roman salute (also used by the Nazis). In 1933, their leader, Eoin O'Duffy, declared: "What the Blackshirts did for Italy and the Brownshirts did for Germany, the Blueshirts will do for Ireland."

In full homage to Mussolini, O’Duffy planned a "March on Dublin," which was prohibited by the government at the last moment, and a potential coup d’etat was limited to street skirmishes between Blueshirts and the government-backed IRA.

The Catholic Church was fully aligned with these men, and when O’Duffy recruited 700 Blueshirts to aid Franco, Cardinal Macrory (primate of all Ireland) extended his blessing to O'Duffy. (This link between Catholicism and Fascism in Ireland is not surprising as both Franco and Mussolini aligned their governments with the Catholic Church. Even Hitler signed a concordat with Pope Pius XI in 1933.)

As history shows, the dark side of Fascism was a militarism and empire building that traumatized the world. Between 1935 and 1936, Mussolini marched into Abyssinia, Hitler occupied the Rhineland, and Franco led on assault on Madrid. But before these events occurred, Fascism was a majority movement in these countries. Italians, Germans, Spaniards, and the Irish were not immoral people. Rather, they were impoverished and broken people. The buy-in cost was meager. The promised reward was great.

Neil Ferron is the dramaturg and assistant to the director for Dancing at Lughnasa.